While much of the nation has been blanketed in smoke at some point during this wildfire season — which officials have said is easily the worst on record — the sight is eerily similar to that recognized over many of the province’s dense urban centres. But in places like Hamilton, it’s not trees that are burning. The smoke plumes that hang over the city, giving it a ghostly appearance, come from the rows upon rows of industrial factories that characterize what has become known as ‘Steel City’.
Like the multitude of wildfires that have burned through many parts of the country, most recently devastating Yellowknife and Kelowna, B.C, the smoke from these factories is a significant threat to human health, especially considering some of these factories are not held to Ontario’s established air quality standards, instead granted permission to expel harmful chemicals beyond levels deemed safe.
Under the Ontario Environmental Protection Act (EPA), the Province dictates the maximum concentration of pollutants that can be released from certain industries in order to maintain safe air quality within nearby cities. But while stringent caps are placed on pollutants like benzo(a)pyrene, benzene, calcium oxide, chromium compounds and manganese — among over 100 other toxic matters — there is a work around for factories to continue emitting higher levels of these pollutants than what is deemed acceptable under the EPA, putting non-consenting individuals who live close to these smokestacks at higher risk of a variety of ailments including asthma, many forms of cancer and other respiratory diseases.
These hall passes to pollute beyond acceptable levels are called “site-specific standards” under Ontario’s Local Air Quality Regulations. These exemptions allow certain facilities to emit hundreds of times the acceptable level of pollutants. The standards are intended for facilities that cannot meet, or would have significant difficulty meeting, air standard compliances most often as a result of technological limitations.
According to a spokesperson with the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), these exemptions are only granted after the industry has shown a significant effort to do all it can to reduce the pollutants released from its factories.
“These standards focus on actions, by an individual facility, to reduce emissions to air as much as possible while considering technological limitations, what is currently feasible, and best operational practices,” the MECP spokesperson told The Pointer. “A facility that meets its site-specific standard is considered to be in compliance with regulation.”
The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) notes that there are currently over 15 facilities operating under site-specific standards across the province, including major urban centres like Sarnia, Hamilton, Guelph, Windsor, Niagara Falls, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and Timmins. More than 10 of these exemptions expired at the end of June, triggering advocacy from the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) to the MECP, demanding improvements be made to a system that the organization says does not provide enough notice or information to residents around the factories granted these site specific standard exemptions. According to CELA, many of the mechanisms to improve communication with the public already exist within the processes used by the Ontario government, but only need to be extended and improved.
“There is considerable public concern about the MECP’s use of alternative standards to regulate air emissions in Ontario,” Theresa McClenaghan, Executive Director and Counsel for CELA, wrote in a letter to MECP dated June 29. “In particular, the public is concerned that the use of site-specific standards allows facilities to discharge contaminants at significantly higher levels than the provincial air standards — in some cases by several orders of magnitude.”
In one case, Rain Carbon, an industrial chemical producer and supplier in Hamilton, was granted permission to emit benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels nearly 30 percent higher than Ontario’s provincial standard. The World Health Organization (WHO) says benzene is unsafe at any level of exposure. The site-specific standard for Rain Carbon, expired in November 2022. Earlier this year, the provincial government issued an order to the company to move forward with a number of studies to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals released as a result of its operations. The order was supported by residents who commented during the ERO consultation period.
“As a resident of lower Hamilton I am extremely concerned with the amount of carcinogenic chemicals being released into the air we breathe. If there are ways to reduce these emissions, then companies like Rain Carbon need to invest in those technologies to make it happen. It’s hard to support any industry that is actively killing the residents,” one resident wrote.
“A couple of weeks ago I counted 5 of my Facebook friends in the lower city who had cancer or were fighting cancer. Three of my family friends have moved out of Hamilton (in the lower city) because of health problems related to breathing problems,” wrote another. “It is not acceptable to have a company such as Rain Carbon continue to pollute our city with cancer causing substances when they have the capability of reducing their emissions. If they will not follow the Ministry’s basic requirements then they should not be operating or anywhere else.”
Site-specific standards are granted as a last resort when it becomes clear that an industry will not be able to meet the provincially legislated Air Quality Standards, despite their best efforts. Before submitting a request to MECP, a company must produce a plan that outlines its steps to reduce the amount of pollutants released and host a community meeting to make the public aware of the application and the company’s efforts. The applicant is required to explain the request, provide a summary of information that will inform its request and answer any questions that community members may have. Once the ministry reviews the request, it is posted on the Environmental Registry of Ontario (ERO) for a minimum of 30 days and is open for written comments.
“Potential health risks are taken into account in this review, including assessments of predicted contaminant levels in the most impacted areas (i.e. residences) in the vicinity of the facility,” a spokesperson for MECP told The Pointer in an email statement.
CELA says this process does not go far enough to educate the public about these exemptions and the potential risks. The legal association is asking the Ministry to enhance the ability of the public to take part in the commenting process by extending the legislated posting period on the ERO beyond 30 days; require public notice through news media; give direct notice to politicians, community organizations and environmental organizations; and allow for oral submissions during the decision making process. CELA is asking MECP to go above the minimum requirements in order to allow the public to be more involved in the process of making decisions that could have potentially harmful effects on their health.
An example of how site-specific standards can impact human health can be seen in Hamilton. According to CELA, the city is estimated to have at least six different companies operating under 12 different site-specific standards. For the past two years, the City of Hamilton, supported by Health Canada, has been monitoring the air quality throughout the City using 60 different monitoring stations. Even for a municipality that has been characterized by smokestacks and smog, the results of the air quality testing are incredibly concerning. The study found that the concentrations of benzo(a)pyrene, another known carcinogen, to be higher across the entire City than the provincial standards. Matthew Adams, one of the scientists running the study, has been quoted saying the pollution has the health equivalent of “smoking one cigarette per day”.
Dealing with the results of the research and other studies that have shown adverse health effects across the city, like one study that found higher rates of blood cancer linked to benzene across Hamilton, St. Catharines, Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay (all industrial hotspots), has led Hamilton’s leaders to question whether the benefits really outweigh the risks in allowing companies to operate under site-specific standards.
Councillor John-Paul Danko shared his concerns during a board of health meeting on March 20. During the meeting, council voted unanimously in favour of directing staff to review the impact of site-specific standards granted to the steel-making sector across the city and requested Mayor Andrea Horwath contact the MECP to express the City’s opposition to extensions of these standards.
“Ontario has strict air quality regulations that all industry is expected to be in compliance with,” a spokesperson for MECP told The Pointer in an email statement. “Site specific standards allow certain facilities to remain in operation providing jobs to local communities, while investing in new technology to bring them in line with Ontario’s air quality regulations.”
Placing private interests—whether industrial companies or the development industry—over those of the public has become a theme with the PC government under Premier Doug Ford. The recent Greenbelt scandal exposed how a secretive PC process cut corners to provide billions of dollars in land value to developers, while removing lands from the protected Greenbelt, despite repeated calls from members of the public and advocacy groups to leave it untouched. Site specific standards raise the question of whether human health is losing out to the will of companies who are unable or unwilling to adapt their operations to limit the release of toxic pollutants.
Under the Environmental Protection Act, site-specific standards can be granted for a period of five to 10 years, but the MECP did not explain how these timelines are decided, or whether changes can be made to the exemption before the 10-year period ends.
The MECP stated that an existing site-specific standard can be amended if it is determined that the facility is capable of meeting a stricter standard.
While it’s unclear whether the PCs will heed CELA’s call and improve the notifaction and public consultations processes for these exemptions, what is clear is the government is not shying away from using them.
On March 20, MECP approved a site-specific standard for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulphuric acid for Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Lennox Generating Station. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are air pollutants that can cause irritation of the skin, eyes and mucous membranes in small quantities and at higher quantities can cause irritation and inflammation of the respiratory system especially during periods of physical activity. Sulphuric acid is a mineral acid that is corrosive and can irritate the skin or nose and throat when breathed in. Continued exposure to sulphuric acid can accumulate into cancer of the throat, larynx or lungs.
While the decision was a disappointment for CELA, a blog post from the association notes that it is promising to see some recommendations from OPG adopted including the following:
- The purchase of cleaner residual fuel with a lower sulphur content
- The reduction of sulphur concentration by an annual average of 0.6 percent by weight within five years
- The creation of a community liaison committee, that meets a minimum of once per year, including local citizens, First Nations and Public Health to provide timely information on operations
- The notification of the MECP and the public when two consecutive five-minute concentrations of sulphur dioxide exceed 530 micrograms per cubic metre.